Broken Branch: Chapter 3

There are two great shames of my life, and they are kin to one another, which only proves I could not learn from my mistakes until it was too late. I beg my readers, don’t let our mistake in Rhos make you think less of Thereus. I am to blame.

We discussed what we should do, Thereus and I. He told me how the political situation lay in Thalata at the moment. King Hearaklakain was of the Akain family, which competed with the Radanth and Mina families in a triangular system that dated back to the wars after Lirsan Kur’s death. Political battles had replaced violent ones, so that now, even as Heraklakain lay on his deathbed, the three families connived and conspired against one another to establish their own heir as king. Already Iksan Radanth had been banished for some financial matters that Thereus explained in tiresome detail.

Thereus and his family were supporters of the House of Akain and favored Rotha as the next king. “Gamna is ambitious and manipulative, while Prince Areis is well known for his weakness of mind. He will be a tool of those who have true power in his house,” he told me.

“Should I say what I saw in the throne of Mealoros?” I asked him. “I may not be believed. We were certainly not the first to brave the dangers of the Black Hill, and I know of no account of anyone having seen visions such as mine.”

“Then you’ve truly been chosen by Heaven,” said Thereus cheerfully. “But you may be right. You’re a diviner, and what’s more, a diviner from Lhaursi, the center of the art. Why don’t you imply you’ve learned all this in your divination?”

And I agreed that this would be an excellent idea. I was the song to fight, and yet I fear I did more to deceive.

Thereus showed me the jewel he had found in Mealoros and told me how it reflected three human faces in its emerald depths. I saw no faces, but he insisted that he could see me on one side, Vin on another, and a man he didn’t know on the third. To this day I am not sure what they meant, though I have my suspicions.

We met a friend of Thereus’s on the boat ride down the river to Rhos. His name was Areis Vinekthara, and he was looking for his brother, who had failed to return from the capital city at the appointed time. He was a large, friendly man, and though I never got to know him as well as I did Seadeis, it was obvious how much he cared for his family and his friends. He deserved better than his ultimate fate.

Now, alas, I must confirm the darkest rumors of those dark days. There are many who deny that the priests of Thalata ever set their knives to cut human flesh, but I saw it with my own eyes. We heard the echoing words of the priest as we approached the Thiapol at the heart of the city. But it was not a sacrifice day and the words were not those of the traditional liturgy. Indeed, they were in the Sotlaci language, not Old Esu. A beautiful language, but not used for sacrifices!

Ri tlócala tes zitúsala siláh tárjun garám tári tarcáv siláh run. So that you will give roots and leaves to us, we will give blood to you.

Tára silá lih saríl. I give with this blade.

Ijó. Atikívala, sarátotl dárenda tarcávenda. It is done. Tikivs, drink from his blood.

Notice that the word was dárenda, not líhenda. It was the blood of a human being. And I can only cry, “Tára surá. I weep!”

“I cannot believe the king allows this,” Areis said. He had run on ahead to get a better look. “It was High Priest Arkein himself who drove in the knife.”

“The king is dying,” Thereus replied, shaking his head.

“If that is the kind of priesthood there is in Rhos, it would be better if Lirsan Kur had never laid the first brick,” said Areis, and clenched his fists.

Legally, I believe, the sacrifice was an execution. The victim was Iksan’s partner in crime, one Diaonu Radanth. That must be how Arkein persuaded the senate to allow it, but since when have priests been executioners? Since when have deaths been consecrated to the Tikivs, to the cruel ice spirits that our fathers knew not?

We spoke first with Rotha Akain, who expressed his sympathy but directed us to Senator Theaden as a man who would be better able to help us. But Theadean only evaded our questions and told us in sad tones that some things were necessary, no matter how cruel they may seem, given the kelp blight that was afflicting us, or words to that effect. I was too angry to remember them well.

Things took a turn for the better, or so it seemed, when Thereus received a letter from Rotha requesting another audience. This time Rotha was accompanied by Grai, an elderly lady of the Radanth house, who told us this in between sips of tea. “Against the shadow we face, noble houses must put aside their old enmities, and so I have come here to Akain. And now the powers of gold and of augury have joined us. It will be a hard battle, but now I believe I see some hope for the future of Thalata. Let us discuss what is to be done.”

“Surely there must be priests opposed to this sacrifice to the Tikivs,” either Thereus or I said.

“I would wager there are many,” said Rotha, “but Krasoa was Arkein’s main opponent, and now that he is dead a new leader must emerge. And schism within the priesthood would be a dreadful thing in their eyes. Royal houses may bicker and nobles may rebel, but for the priests to be divided? Better to sort things out in quiet. No, this must be solved politically. If my father dies, I would be a candidate for the crown. Gamna would be my only real opponent, as I gather that House Radanth is embroiled in troubles. That will be a fine battle.”

“I believe there to be three ways we can approach this. Through the senate, the priesthood, or the common people.”

“The commoners?” Rotha asked, wrinkling his forehead. “What good is that?”

Thereus smiled. “Good enough.”

“So far Rotha and I have been considering the senate alone,” Grai continued. “We believe we can muster enough votes to condemn human sacrifice, once it is put in those terms, but it may be difficult to initiate such a vote without outside support. I propose accusing Arkein of blasphemy against Heaven.”

“You are not serious,” Thereus said. “The cult of the Tikivs is almost as popular as that of Heaven, and they are never viewed as conflicting.” My readers today may find it difficult to understand just how widespread the Tikiv cult was before Luxan’s preaching and the revelation of the Lords of Night.

“Can one who is not a priest accuse someone of blasphemy?” I asked.

“Do not forget our allies in the priesthood,” Grai said. “And Thereus, it is true that the cults did not conflict. Until recently.”

“What of the common people?” Rotha asked again.

“People don’t know what to think of the sacrifice,” Thereus put in. “Some are appalled, some approve, but most, I believe, are numb.”

“We will need to stir them up against Arkein. Difficult, true, but our diviner is also a bard.”

This startled me. “An apprentice only. Surely you do not expect me to sing?”

“To write. Most people can read, these days,” said Grai. “Write your poetry, and make the people see that this wickedness cannot continue.”

“I suppose I can do that. Yes, I can do that,” I said. Indeed, I had already been making some small efforts along those lines.

“If you think it is necessary,” said Rotha.

“Why is your father a great king?” Grai asked. “Because he loves Thalata. Don’t you think there is more to Thalata than the priests and the nobles?”

“Ah yes, the doctrine of old Sothuru. We shall see, I suppose.”

“Then may luck be with us all. The battle for Thalata is beginning.”

Thereus was silent as we walked back to the inn where we were staying, and when we sat in the common room for our meal, he spoke to me, saying, “Branwei, we don’t have to stay here any longer. I have finished my business. We can go to your home if you want. If they are trying to destroy Lhaursi as well, I don’t expect you to just stand by.”

“King Sarwe is a good and noble man,” I replied. “The north at least is safe as long as he rules. Besides, I have always wanted to try my hand at satire.”

“But he knows nothing of what they are doing! Wouldn’t it be best to return to your home as quickly as possible, to warn them? Why do you stay in Thalata? I tell you that I will go with you.”

“I linger because in Lhaursi I had never seen a priest kill a man and dedicate his death to the spirits of winter. If I can do anything to fight against that, I will. Tell me, what is this High Priest Arkein like?”

“The best way I can put it is that he seems to exist in a different world altogether. He doesn’t react to things the way most people do, as if nothing affects him.” Thereus hesitated before adding, “I had an impression that agreeing with Arkein was almost more dangerous than disagreeing with him.”

“How did he become High Priest?”

“I wouldn’t know. He’s been in that position for as long as I can remember.”

I asked more questions, about the priesthood in general, about Dioanu and Iksan, about the spread of the Tikiv cult, and dear Thereus answered them all. Sometimes he read and sometimes he walked the streets of Rhos, occasionally returning with a gift for me. One day he returned and there was a harrowed look on his face. I questioned him about it and he took a long time to answer. It was a complicated story he told, but I trust I can relay it correctly.

When he was in Mealoros he had seen a strange man in brown robes gesture to him and lead him up a stairway to a small side room. He tells me he felt no fear, as if he knew the man somehow. When he reached the top the man was gone, but there were two skeletons. One was seated in a chair and wore a robe of glimmering scales, while the other lay on the ground. It was upon the breast of this second skeleton that he found the green jewel he brought out of the hill.

At the time he had no notion of who the bodies were or how the jewel had come to Mealoros. But then he met Dheukal, a friend of his family, an old sailor who was so much more than that. I met Dheukal briefly on the voyage from Athoros, and thought him rather feeble-minded, I admit. Yet Thereus described him as having changed suddenly, as if he had been putting on an act. Sharply and rapidly he spoke to Thereus, telling him many strange things.

He told the story of how one of the Lords of Night had come to Mealoros, that place of power, to spin out its dead souls as phantoms of fear throughout the island. But the last heir of an ancient tradition of magic in Saina was aware and set out to stop him. His name was Dealthesus, and he deserves to be remembered alongside his wife, Peari, who would have joined him had she not carried a child in her womb.

It was Dealthesus who perished destroying the Lord of Night and it was his amulet that Thereus wore now, the same amulet that had protected Dealthesus from the Lord of Night’s power. It was Dealthesus and Peari, it seems, who were the ancestors of Thereus, so you see that he was destined for greatness from his birth. They were associated somehow with a secret society that survived to this day, but Thereus did not fully understand that part of Dheukal’s story and so neither do I.

This story troubled Thereus, and he spoke with me about visiting Saina to learn what he could about its magic, but he eventually decided against it. Saina is in Thangar, and these were the days when its rot lay heavy upon it.

I began spreading the words I had written against Arkein, delivering them to Grai and Rotha to be distributed. Though we soon learned that I was not the only one writing propaganda. A bard appeared in the common room of our inn singing about the glories of the house of Mina. As for the priesthood, I turn now to Luxan.

I do not deny the respect and admiration that so many have for Luxan, but to me he will always be little more than an example of Heaven’s grace. To his credit, he has never sought to hide his crimes, but it is so, so easy for his devotees to overlook them. I first saw Luxan when he was addressing a crowd in Rhos, praising not Heaven but the Tikivs.

“All across the islands things are bleak,” he said. “In Karei there is rebellion and murder and unnatural cold, in Deavid there is anarchy in all but name, and here in Thalata we have blight and treachery.” (Here I admit I felt a sort of pride that Luxan didn’t mention my own home, Gineadh). “Why is this? Why do we suffer? Dark enemies plot our destruction unseen, I fear. Heaven shield us, but Heaven is far.”

“Ice-worshiper!” someone called from the midst of the crowd.

Luxan looked pained. “Understand this, the Tikivs are far greater than ice. They are spirits, not coarse matter. You say I worship the Tikivs. I say, where should we seek help but from the Tikivs? They guide the winds and the waters. Yea, since the days of legend, since the Magistrates fell from their rule of the islands, the curse of the Tikivs has been upon us. Let us remove that curse and seek to live by the order of Heaven and under the good grace of the Tikivs. We can do both, as was shown by the execution, and – far nobler word – the sacrifice, of Dioanu. I, at least, am not the enemy of Heaven, and neither are the Tikivs.”

You see how the Lords of Night were feeding him his words?

Not long after I began writing, King Hearaklakain of Thalata died, and mourning filled all of Rhos. We spoke of it together, Thereus, Areis, and I, of how the senate would now meet to choose which of the three noble candidates would be raised to kingship. Oh, how we hoped that it would not be Gamna Mina who was chosen, for he was an ally of Arkein.

But now I must write of the Brotherhood of Theala.

Broken Branch: Chapter 2

On our way north, Thereus and Vin argued constantly. They argued about Thereus’s perfumed water and about the sword dancers we saw on our way out of Rhos (it was almost Tirsday). They argued about whether or not I could trust the other. They argued about the Latiorn paintings on the rocks halfway between Rhos and Ealisi. “The Latiorn still linger in the mountains in the east of Karei,” Vin said, tracing the colorful lines with his fingers. “Some say these drawings were prophetic.” I do not remember what the painting depicted.

“They seem like they could represent almost anything,” said Thereus. “Any interpretation could be placed on them.”

When we reached Ealisi, some actors were performing a mock-fight that led to another argument. Unfortunately I was the one who instigated it, asking innocently if they were portraying the conquests of Lirsan Kur, who had been born in Ealisi. Vin snorted when he replied. “Hardly something Ealisi should be proud of, in my eyes.”

“Lirsan Kur was a great leader,” Thereus said, waving his stick before him like a sword. “Those other two are probably the sons of Eaku, who ruled Ealisi cruelly until Lirsan returned to his home to free it. A story of heroism fit for Tirsday.”

“And were the Council of Nemhir cruel governors?” Vin asked. He was referring, of course, to the old Council before the Lords of Night infiltrated it. “Yet Lirsan tried to conquer Nemhir and tore it apart in war before he died. He was little better than Mealeaki of Karei. At least we have the decency to regret what our butcher did when he invaded Thalata.”

“Mealeaki killed even the land with his weapons. One of my sisters has been near Thangar, and told me it is shrouded in yellow mist, a barren land where trees are warped and stunted. Mealeaki murdered his prisoners and burnt the towns he conquered, but Lirsan Kur was merciful in victory.”

“Both of you seem strangely vehement over events that happened centuries ago,” I said to interrupt them. “Lirsan Kur and Mealeaki are nothing but ashes now. Is it so important who was a hero and who a villain, if such terms can be applied to a flesh-and-blood man?”

“Strange words for a bard,” Thereus said, and he was right. I had only spoken to try and forestall their argument, and I regretted it. I know now that I was wrong. Thereus was flesh and blood, and yet he was a hero! May no one deny it until the islands sink into the sea!

That evening I told Thereus who I really was and he told me that he loved me. An exchange of confidences, but we didn’t speak of it again until the following evening, when we were the guests of some shepherds watching their flocks. While Vin spoke and sang with them as one shepherd with another, Thereus and I wandered a short distance off.

“I wonder what I am doing here in the north, traveling to a mountain of dark enchantment,” Thereus told me. “I am a merchant’s son, not an adventurer of any sort. Are you sure of what you saw? What I mean to say is, well, are you sure?”

“I am sure, and so is King Sarwe, and so is the head diviner of Tortarven. The stars say I must go to the Black Hill, as surely as three birds flying together means good news will come,” I replied.

“Is that what they mean?”

“Do not worry, Thereus,” I said, sweeping my arm across the sphere of the heavens. “Though auguries can be misinterpreted or tortoise shells misread, the stars are always true. Every person and every place and every situation has its heavenly counterpart. If I had my astrolabe, I could even try to find your own star. Don’t think I have no fear of what lies ahead. I know the stories of ghosts walking the halls of Mealoros, and I know of the Neras that spread fear across Thalata. But we must continue onwards, or face the deerblood’s knife.”

“For six days there has been no sign of that knife. Maybe he wants us to go to the Black Hill and we’re playing into his hands.”

“Whatever he wants, I must go.”

“And I will come with you. Wherever you go.” We kissed then. I cannot forget, even when I try, how it felt with his arms around my shoulders, one hand on my cheek. We knew so little, of the present or the future, and yet we were so absurdly happy.

The next day we came to Tharis, the town at the foot of Mealoros, but as we approached its walls our fears came upon us. The deerblood had caught up to us at last, and a well-aimed and well-thrown dagger pierced Vin’s leg, giving him the limp that he has to this day, I am told. Thereus carried him into Tharis, though I fear it would have been easier the other way around. A guard escorted us to a doctor who took Vin into her care; the deerblood seemed to have vanished again.

Thereus went up to the roof, telling me to stay where I was. He had some idea of searching the streets for the deerblood assassin, I think. He told me later what had happened, how the deerblood leaped down from a higher roof nearby and attacked him. I can imagine that pale face, skin drawn tight against the skull, taunting Thereus. “It happened so fast,” Thereus told me. “Somehow I managed to knock his knife away, then we were struggling on the edge, and he went over.” Embracing me, he told me that we were safe. The deerblood was not killed by the fall, understand, but we trusted, perhaps foolishly, that the city guard would keep him in bondage.

There was a kind of poison on the dagger that had struck Vin, so that he struggled through sickness and delirium for several days until at last Tirsday arrived, and with the sun at the highest point in the sky, Vin emerged from his trial, shouting something about his father. He insisted that we all leave immediately and not wait.

I should describe Mealoros for those who have never been there. The hill is completely surrounded by water and stands within sight of the northern coast of Thalata. It is called the Black Hill because its slopes are of dark stone and no kelp grows around it. What is more, it was once the heart of an ancient Latiorn kingdom, filled with the tunnels where they lived and sang their forgotten songs. The gates have been broken and open for centuries, and written above them in an ancient form of writing are these words:

Len túrint jjáérae jaerv nílaen njō tes táéni neghír njō újim. Enter into this dark realm and do not fear the dead.

The water between coast and hill is shallow enough that one can pass between the two without wetting one’s chin. We entered carrying torches, but when we passed the threshold, the inside of the hill was illuminated by a strange white light. There were paintings on the walls, like those we had seen before but grander and richer. Men and monsters, mountains and oceans, spirals and triangles and curves, interacting and interlocking in a great dance all around. There were hundreds of alcoves set into the walls, and at the far end of the cavern was a throne set on a dais.

Vin began going around the walls searching the alcoves for something, but I approached the throne. You know that the Latiorn have the gift of sight across the islands and the years, across ages of time and tortured seas, and I had heard that this throne granted the same gift to all who sat in it. If the stars had brought me here, I told myself, it was for a reason that I could only perceive by seating myself in that throne, to see all the islands in one gaze.

I saw the priesthood of Thalata rotting and noble set against noble. I saw the tyranny of the king in Karei and secrets buried deep. I saw how in Lhaursi we were being played like tasoth pieces, the auguries manipulated so that both realms, Gineadh and Deavid, followed the paths set for them.

I saw the Lords of Night in their twelve thrones in Nemhir and the people of Nemhir enslaved. They were building an army and ships to carry it. Their agents were spread across the islands to ready them for conquest.

I fell from the throne, terrified and overwhelmed by what I had seen. There was something looming over me, a human form dressed in a silver cloak that glimmered like fish scales. Its features were strangely ambiguous, so that I could not tell whether it was man or woman, but it was the eyes that caught my attention. The eyes were filled with malice, horrible envy and hate that struck me like a blow, and I knew it was a Nera, an undead spirit.

Suddenly Thereus was there, driving his saber into the Nera’s back, but to no effect, not even a tear in its cloak. It turned on him and he screamed, dropping his saber. A thought came into my mind that was not my own: “You will die here and spend eternity trapped between this world and the next!”

It was Vin who came to our rescue, bringing a sword down through the Nera’s body. Flames as dark as night roared up from the crumpled phantom, consuming it in an instant.

“I think that was the ghost of one of the Lords of the Night,” I said, and Luxan has since confirmed my guess. “I have heard of no other spirit that could have such power.”

“Hemeljik has power to defeat even ghosts, banishing them to death,” said Vin.

“The sword of Karei kings, lost since Mealeaki was made captive in Pol Lene. It was kept here, then?”

“I suppose I should tell you everything now,” said Vin, his eyes changed somehow. “I am a direct descendent of Mealeaki, and so heir to the throne of Karei. For centuries, I am told, the rightful kings have been hidden among shepherds in Tarea Tealeanu. The tradition has been passed down through my family that this sword and this ring were brought here, where none would dare to enter, so that none would restore the tainted line. But I will bring the line of Salomoh back to Karei and erase that taint. I will.”

“A difficult task,” I said, remembering what I had seen in the Latiorn throne. “The king who rules now will not be pleased to be supplanted, and his eyes see all and kill in the night. And even the common people hate the name of Mealeaki.”

“I see I am not the only one who found something in the darkness,” said Vin, nodding towards the green jewel Thereus was wearing around his neck.

“It was in an upper room, around the neck of a skeleton. I don’t know what it is,” Thereus said.

I stood up and touched the jewel. When I did, a thrilling sensation ran through me from my finger to my feet. “The Nera is gone for now, but I am not sure if even Hemeljik can cut a spirit’s ties to Meloros forever. We should leave this place soon, if both of you are satisfied with what you have found.”

“Satisfied? No, but I rather doubt anything in here can help me. What about you, Branwei, and what you saw in the stars?”

“I suspect our destinies are set now,” I said. I had seen the islands and the peril they were in, and I imagined myself as the heroine who would use her vision to help deliver them. I’ve mentioned that I was a symbol from my birth, so perhaps that is why I have never been able to see myself as an ordinary woman, but have been cursed with a need to set myself at the head of every conflict I see. One woman, with her visions and songs, against the darkness! I have been cured, thank Heaven, but it was a painful cure.

Vin left us after that to return to Karei, and what he did there is another story, one that is well-known throughout the islands. I am telling the story of Thereus, who was returning to Rhos now, and I returned with him. I was entranced by my vision, to be sure, but more importantly I was entranced by Thereus, and I would go anywhere with him. I sent a message to Sarwe explaining what had happened and what I was doing now, though with certain omissions I thought best.

Before we left Tharis we attended the Tirsday sacrifice, listening to the familiar words of the liturgy, which I doubt I need to translate here.

Havoatir haiz teathala thail. Ean godealthara thala than, ean godealthara Havoatir zalan. Thala mine saral xun Havoatir teasaransoa tha dhala xasi. Thala dealthara la gara zalan teathala volan xun Havoatir. Thala mine saral xun Havoatir teasaransoa tha dhala xasi.

Broken Branch: Chapter 1

It is not easy to sit down and write this. It has been ten years since I knew Thereus, ten years in which I seem, in my own eyes at least, to have become an entirely different woman. I have given up trying to read the future, I have given up the palace at Tortarven, and most painfully of all, I have given up Thereus, but I think I have gained something in return. I was foolish then but am wiser now.

I met Thereus’s father before I met Thereus himself. Eapora came to the palace to negotiate with the king regarding kelp rights in Lhaursi, or something along those lines. He was not a likeable man, sharp of eye and sharp of voice, and his manners were those of Thalata, unrefined and simple. He did not mention his son once, though he frequently mentioned his daughters, no doubt endeavoring to create common ground between him and the king. Sarwe was childless, of course, but had adopted me to be raised in the palace as a symbol of unity between the seaborn aristocrats and the commoners.

It was then that I saw the falling star that would bring me to Thereus and bring us all to our destinies. Vrean dismissed it as he did most astrological predictions, for obvious reasons (Vrean was a member of the Verin Oc, the High Circle). But Sarwe thought it notable enough to allow me to go to the place indicated by the star accompanied by two guards. The place was Mealoros, the famed Black Hill. As for the guards, better they be forgotten. Our itinerary would take us from Tortarven to Athoros, from Athoros to Rhos, and from Rhos to Mealoros.

I was translating Odhureus’s Eight Seas at the time, and found myself reciting it as I looked at the fields and hills around Athoros, our ship bearing us away. There was a young man standing at the railing nearby, a strikingly handsome man with a pointed beard and a preposterous walking stick. This was Thereus Vineapora, and I fear I startled him when I recited the words about Odhureus, but with the aplomb that always characterized him he recovered and introduced himself.

“I am Thereus, a merchant out of Athoros,” he said.

“I am Branwei, apprentice diviner from Tortarven. I apologize for interrupting your meditations, but that verse came into my mind,” I replied. We were so cautious with one another. We always would be, I suppose. I wish I had been given more time to know him better, but the stars were not right.

“Odhureus’s Eight Seas?” He smiled at me, that marvelous charming smile. “That’s usually where I stop reading. I don’t find it as interesting when the hero goes east, away from his home. But the translation I read didn’t rhyme.”

“It’s my own translation,” I said. “I set down that part only this morning. The original work has a rhyme scheme, and I wanted to bring that into modern speech.”

“So you are a bard as well as a diviner.”

“My guardian wants me to be skilled in many arts,” I said.

“My father concentrates on business alone. Poetry is not something he encourages.”

Thereus told me later that he was afraid that if I knew who his father was, I would judge him for it. But compared to his father he was like a young green tree next to a dried stump. He was alive and bold, and I thought then that I had never met anyone like him before and never would again.

The next day, when we were in Putha, a deerblood brought us both letters from the seer Krasoa. At the time he was not as famous as he would later become, but everyone knew that there was a seer in Rhos whose dreams foretold the future. Despite what rumor says, the letters told us nothing specific, only to come to Rhos to speak with him as soon as possible. Thereus and I argued about the matter: he was skeptical, as was only wise. There are many who have claimed to be seers, and many frauds among them. The latest who was acclaimed by all as genuine was Sanum, who lived five hundred years ago. Whether Krasoa was genuine or a fraud, we agreed to visit him and see for ourselves.

My guards didn’t approve of Thereus much. (I should mention that by this time his parentage was no secret, though I don’t recall from whom I first heard it.) Their suspicions were natural and I shared them to some extent, though I was also swayed by Thereus’s charms. I reasoned with myself that if a seer had called us both, Thereus must be trustworthy. Of course, I had not yet met Luxan. By the time we reached Rhos, Thereus and I were on friendly terms, and agreed to go together to meet Krasoa.

It was obvious by now that he had fallen in love with me. I still remember the way he looked at me when I sang a song of my namesake, Branwei Mifedrin, and how it impressed and flattered me. He hardly even touched his food! How far were our thoughts from the story I was telling then, the story that would bind our paths so cruelly. My readers will forgive me if I give no more than a brief summary of it here. The last time I sang Branwei’s Lament in full was in the court of King Glvath, and I will never sing it again.

Branwei Mifredrin was the wife of Walhu prince of Lhaursi. This was at a time when the Lords of Night were attempting to bring Lhaursi under their rule and the land of Mathlax was drowned under the sea. Walhu went to Nemhir to confront the Lords of Night, but he was betrayed and slain. So Branwei followed him to the land of eternal ice and cold, where she stared upon the spires of ruined Joteim and wept for her husband.

She wept, and I still weep.

In Rhos we ascended the hill at the center of the city to the beehive homes of the priests, but there we learned that Krasoa was dead. He had been murdered only the previous day, leaving behind him some notes and a storm of rumors. Some suspected it had to do with the king of Thalata, who was then on his deathbed. Some said that Krasoa had been killed to stop his dreams from coming true, which would make the killer a fool. Thereus and I talked the matter over as we descended the hill again, him making extravagant promises to protect me, which must have amused and irritated my guards.

A few evenings later a deerblood approached me as I was retiring to my room. He had a message, he said, from the Council of Nemhir.

“What do you desire above all things? Love? Fame? It can be yours. The Councilors have great power. They are called the Crafters because they craft whatever future they wish, and the Lords of Night because they rule in the shadows. All you have to do to command your future is make a simple promise. Don’t look so afraid. Nemhir will aid you if you aid it in return.”

“What sort of promise?” I asked.

“Go back to Lhaursi. Tell King Sarwe you failed. Have nothing more to do with Thereus Vineapora. It is as simple and harmless as that. Those who dwell in the cold do not ask for ritual murders or the loss of your soul, whatever the lies of old women say.” The deerblood smiled, stretching his emaciated face. We do not have deerbloods in Lhaursi; we have never trusted the ichor. It may take away all need for sleep or rest, but only Heaven knows what else it does. And besides, we have bad memories of the conqueror Lirsan Kur who first used deerbloods to carry his messages.

“No,” I said. “I refuse.”

“I’m afraid I missed that. Speak up, and remember that the coming of winter cannot be stopped. It would be wise to prepare for the cold.”

“You want me to betray my king and father? No, not in a hundred years.” My own words!

“I prefer to kill when there is no warning. Next time we meet there will be none. I hope to see you soon, Branwei Lisarwe.”

I immediately told my two guards, of course, and they made an excellent show of concern. It transpired the next day that the deerblood assassin had visited Thereus and Vin as well and brought them each a similar warning. But I see I’ve forgotten to mention Vin. I think Thereus was a little jealous of him, absurdly. All the people of Karei can attest that Vin is a good man, but at the time he impressed me as cocky and gauche. Then we knew him only as a shepherd from the rustic island of Tarea Tealeanu, who swaggered as if he were something more. We’d met him at the same inn where we were staying and played some games of tasoth with him, but it wasn’t until the deerblood spoke to us that we realized he was a third to whom Krasoa had sent a letter.

The branch, the song, the ring, the knife. One to loose, one to fight, one to find, one to heal.

I was the song and Thereus, of course, was the branch. A branch flowering and broken.

One more, unpleasant, thing to mention before we set out for the Black Hill, Thereus, Vin, and I. I am not certain whether my guards were in the employ of the Lords of Night directly, but now that I had refused the deerblood’s offer, they turned on me. It was early in the morning when they brought me to a deserted place in the city, full of ramshackle buildings and abandoned carts, and threatened me with death.

“Money can do many things,” I was told. “It can turn friend against friend, brother against brother, servant against mistress.” You see that it was greed that corrupted them, not ideals or curiosity.

I would have died there, I imagine, had it not been for Thereus. When I didn’t come to our appointed meeting, he went looking for me, gathering up some of the city guard on his way. Absurd, foolish, and yet it saved my life. My erstwhile guards were taken into captivity; they would be killed by the deerblood assassin not long afterward.

I was beginning to understand just how long the reach of the Lords of Night was. I was also beginning to believe that Thereus Vineapora would always be there to help me.